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  • Writer's pictureSusan Koehler

Tips for Raising a Reader

We hear a lot about the benefits of reading proficiency, but reading is so much more than a skill set and an achievement level. Reading adds beauty, depth, and richness to our lives. It opens doors and opens minds. It soothes and feeds the soul. It is an intangible gift that we want our children to unwrap. So, in honor of National Literacy Month and International Literacy Day, let’s talk about how to raise a reader. The answer is simple: READ.

Reading to, with, and independently

When should we start reading to children? It’s never too early! Read to infants and tune their ears to the sounds of words that have been artfully woven into phrases and clauses to create meaning. Even if they are too young to comprehend the ideas, they are becoming aware of the rhythmic beauty of language. Tune their eyes to illustrations and name colors, shapes, and objects. At this stage, you are creating an invaluable bond that is associated with books. Continue to read to that child every day. Soon they will realize that what can be said can be written, and what can be written can be read. While this concept seems simple, it is a foundational understanding in the process of learning to read. And don’t worry about reading the same books over and over again -- that’s great! When young children “pretend” to read, perhaps having memorized Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? or paraphrasing the text of Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, the speech-to-print concept is being reinforced, and that is a very good thing.

As children memorize text, or even recognize some words, the read with opportunity emerges. Reading becomes a form of interaction, which strengthens the adult-child bond and creates a comforting emotional climate around the act of sharing books. Make reading interactive. With rhyming text, like Goodnight Moon or The Going to Bed Book, children can fill in the rhymes. This fill-in-the-blank game also works well with predictable, repetitive texts like Pete the Cat and His Four Groovy Buttons or No, David. You may make a habit of reading a repetitive phrase in unison. You might take turns reading. All of these acts reinforce the foundational concepts of the reading process, lead children into making the speech-to-print connection, and expose them to words. Many, many words. And this is a very good thing.

At some point, your child will begin to read independently. Usually, this happens somewhere in second grade. Independent readers will transition from picture books to early chapter books, and at this stage, they find comfort and enjoyment in the familiarity of a series, like The Princess in Black, Mercy Watson, or The Magic Treehouse. By fourth grade, independent reading usually morphs into middle grade novels, like Because of Winn Dixie or Escape From Mr. Lemoncello's Library. However, every child is different. If your child becomes an early independent reader, remember to preview books or use book review services like Common Sense Media to make sure the advanced readability doesn’t present concepts too mature for your young reader. If your child is not becoming an independent reader as quickly as the neighboring kids, don’t be discouraged. Keep reading to and with. Keep the joy in reading. A fatal misstep in this situation would be to stigmatize the reader.

When your child does become an independent reader, don’t stop sharing books! Continuing to read to children from a level higher than they are able to read independently actually reinforces listening comprehension, expands vocabulary, and models prosody (which is that part of reading aloud where you use vocal inflections and create expression). Reading with at this point can also mean reading the same books and discussing them, making recommendations to one another, and developing a sense of community associated with books. I’ll never forget the thrill of reading and enjoying Walk Two Moons, a middle grade novel recommended to me by my then nine-year-old daughter.

Finally, keep in mind that your independent reader needs the time and space to read. If you see that life is hurried and hectic, and that reading is being squeezed in at the end of a busy day when your child actually needs to be sleeping, it’s okay to step back and reevaluate your schedule and priorities. Creating and protecting quiet time for independent reading is not only healthy for reading development -- it’s also a positive step in holistic health for the entire family.

Engagement is key.

There are so many books and so many genres to explore. And as with food, individual tastes differ. Some children read widely, and others are quite picky. However, don’t give up. Get to know your child’s preferences. Visit libraries and bookstores together. Sample books and find the things that tend to hook your child. Do they prefer humor? Nonfiction? Mystery? Graphic novels? Go to local book launches and author events. Meeting an author can forge an immediate connection with a book. Take advantage of community events that expose children to literature -- local library programs, book store promotions, and community reads. Find books by great authors like E. B. White, Roald Dahl, and Kate DiCamillo, that have been made into movies. Set a goal to watch the movie together after the book is read. Pop some popcorn and critique the movie as it compares to the book.

Boost your child’s emotional connection to books by providing real-life experiences associated with them. For example, if your child is reading the fun middle-grade mystery Pie, by Sarah Weeks, work together to bake one of the pie recipes included in the text. Are they reading Lily’s Crossing by Patricia Reilly Giff or Under a War-Torn Sky by L.M. Elliot? Visit a World War II museum or find an age-appropriate WWII documentary to watch together. If the book your child is reading involves running, like Jerry Spinelli’s Maniac Magee or Jason Reynolds’ Ghost, visit a track or trail, do a little reading of your separate books, and then take a break and run together. Does your child like graphic novels by contemporary author-illustrators like Jerry Craft and Raina Telgemeier? Perhaps they’d like to take a drawing class or an online tutorial in creating their own graphic novellas. Remember, the choice is not whether to read, but what to read. Reader engagement is personal and individualized. However, you have the power to support your child’s engagement and build lasting connections with books and with each other.

Accessibility is a must.

If children are going to become readers, they must have access to books from an early age. We can probably all benefit from some decluttering. However, keep in mind that having books in a place where they are repeatedly seen and easily reached by your child is essential to raising a reader. By making books accessible in this way, you are sending important messages. We value books in this house. We are readers. Books are a part of our home. Board books for small children, like their toys, can be stored in baskets within the child’s reach. They're easy to access, and clean-up is not difficult. If you have bookshelves for young children, I suggest small sets of shelves or cubes. (If you have tall bookshelves, make sure they are securely anchored.) Circulate books and themes often, but keep favorites in easy reach. As your child matures, your book collection will mature as well. When it’s time to do a little purging to make room for new books, keep the favorites, but donate others to a school, shelter, or “little free library” in your community. You will have then passed along accessibility to others.

Do it yourself.

There is no more powerful instructional tool than modeling. When your child sees you read, you are reinforcing the behavior of reading. Remember to make time and space for your own reading as well as that of your child. Read in front of and alongside your child, discuss books in your child’s presence, allow your child to see you become absorbed in and emotionally affected by a book. This type of modeling, on a regular basis, is extremely potent. What you do has a far greater impact than what you say. When you visit a bookstore or library, pick out a book for yourself as well as your child. Set aside that time and space to read when they can see you and are aware of your reading behavior. If you are a member of a book club, make sure your child knows about it! You may not be reading the same books, but you are showing your child that books are important to you and that you engage with them on a regular basis. And again, you are creating a positive emotional climate around the act of reading. So, do it yourself, and make sure your child knows about it!

We can all agree that raising readers is important, and no one I know would complain about having a child who loves to read. But how do we get there? READ!

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